Editor’s Note — Victoria Allman is the chef aboard a 143-foot megayacht and the author of the recently released “Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean.” This is the eighth in a series of periodic columns here on OceanLines featuring her irresistible recipes. Best of all for OceanLines readers, who are travelers of the first order, Victoria also gives us a nice taste of the destinations and context in which her recipes were developed. Last month, we savored the sweet tradition of Bahamian sweet coconut bread In this month’s installment, she is in Hong Kong and her friend Vivian exposes her to the culinary chaos and delight of the dim sum house. If you’d like to read her book, just click on the ad in the right sidebar on OceanLines and that will take you to an Amazon link where you can order it.
A Lucky Encounter
by Victoria Allman
Maybe it was the rain or the grayness of Vancouver that transported me to another city surrounded by water, not so long ago, just across the ocean. Physically, we were in sitting down to dim sum in a restaurant in Chinatown engulfed by the clatter of plates and the rumble of the carts rolling past. But, in my mind, I was seated in an identical restaurant in Hong Kong, escaping, not only the rain, but also the chaos of the street.
It was six years earlier and I had been overwhelmed by Hong Kong. The lights of the city burned neon bright. The whirl of people passing, rushing to their destination, disoriented me. My newfound friend Vivian was leading me through her city and was drowning in the confusion. I needed a reprieve. It was a Saturday morning and we ducked into a crowded dim sum restaurant for a meal.
“Har gau, chiu-chao,” a short woman with straight black hair called as she weaved her rickety cart through the labyrinth of tables. The bamboo steamers piled precariously on top jolted forward at an unnatural angle as the cart bumped to a stop against our table leg. The oolong tea in my glass leaped up and over the edge.
Vivian said something in rapid-fire Cantonese and the woman plunked two of the steamers down in front of us. She grabbed for the paper on the edge of the table and ticked off two boxes before she pushed on, not once breaking a smile.
“This one is pork.” Vivian used her chopsticks to point at the dumplings nestled on a bed of cabbage. “And, this one is shrimp.”
The pink of the shrimp glowed from within its translucent wrapper. I worked my chopsticks around the small bundle and prayed it wouldn’t slip from my grip before I had tasted what was inside. There was a luscious feel on my tongue just before the dumpling slid down my throat like a light slippery noodle. Startled, and not wanting the sensation to end, I looked back into the steamer. Empty. Vivian had already eaten the other har gau.
“Just two?” I asked. “Will she be back with more?” I looked around the crowded room hoping to spot the same woman again.
Vivian giggled. “Just wait. There is more to come.” As I tried to grasp the pork bundle in the other steamer, Vivian said, “We will have six, or eight, or maybe nine different things.”
I looked at her, wondering if her strange counting was a mistaken translation to English. She must have sensed my question and started to explain. “In our culture, lucky numbers are based on Chinese words which sound similar to other Chinese words. All numbers sounding like words with positive connotations are considered auspicious, such as numbers 6, 8 and 9.” I smiled, liking the idea of having an auspicious meal.
Another middle-aged woman came by with beef ribs. Vivian nodded her head and another round steamer was plopped on top of our empty ones along with a plate of steamed Chinese broccoli and oyster sauce. The smell of ginger emanated from the bamboo. I sucked the tender five-spice flavored bones as Vivian continued. “Numbers like 4, 5 and 7 are considered unlucky.” The stem of the broccoli crunched as she bit into it. “Number seven, for example, means spiritual or ghostly.” She reached for another long stalk. “Also, the seventh month of the Chinese calendar is called the ghost month when all the gates of hell are opened for spirits to visit the living.”
Oh, I didn’t want that.
I counted the plates in front of us, four, and quickly looked around for the next cart. Battered salt and pepper squid appeared, as well as crispy-fried wontons filed with pork and Chinese mushrooms. I relaxed, knowing we were back to a lucky number of dishes.
“We start with lighter steamed dishes and then move on to fried.” Vivian was a wealth of knowledge. I was so wrapped up in the history and taste explosions in my mouth that the cacophony going on around me faded. I was intrigued.
It was that glimpse into her culture that I tried to relate to Patrick back in Vancouver. I struggled to remember which numbers were the lucky ones. I didn’t want to get it wrong and start our exploration of the Canadian coast on a bad note. The noisy atmosphere transported me back as I searched my memory for the accurate information. Plates of sticky rice and paper-thin pancakes scattered around our table. The opening of the front door brought a wave of the scent of barbecued duck through the restaurant from the birds hanging in the window.
I tapped my pointer and middle fingers on the table when a scrawny man in a white dishwashers jacket came by to refill my tea, remembering that was the sign of thanks. I felt like I was back in Hong Kong with Vivian that day. And whether I had five, seven, or nine dishes in front of me, I felt lucky to be eating such delicacies again.
When I first read this recipe, I thought it was too much work. But, after the first trial, I realized they were easy, just finicky and definitely worth the time. I set aside three hours and make enough to freeze for future use. These are tasty afternoon snacks, hors d’oeuvres or light lunches.
Sweet Soy Dipping Sauce:
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Whisk all together and set aside.
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and chopped into ¼” dice.
- ¾ teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons fatty bacon, minced
- 3 tablespoons bamboo shoots, rinsed and chopped fine
- 1 tablespoon green onions, white part only, diced fine
- 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
- ¾ teaspoons sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 ½ teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Mix together diced bacon, bamboo shoots and green onions and mince finely with a knife until well combined. Mix into shrimp and set aside. In a smaller bowl, whisk together cornstarch, sugar, white pepper, Shaoxing rice wine, and sesame oil. Mix into the shrimp and marinate for 30 minutes while you mix the dough.
Wheat Starch Dough:
- 1 cup wheat starch
- ½ cup tapioca starch
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup boiled water, cooled for 2 minutes
- 4 teaspoons canola oil
Mix wheat starch, tapioca starch and salt. Pour in half the hot water and stir with a wooden spoon until incorporated. Add the rest of the hot water and work into dough. Add canola oil as soon as dough begins to come together and knead with your hands for a minute to make a smooth, play-dough like dough. Divide into four equal balls and cover with saran wrap. Rest for 5 minutes before rolling.
Slice a ziplock bag down the sides and brush with canola oil. Roll one of the portions of dough into a 1” log and divide into 8 portions. Cover with saran wrap. Take one portion, roll it into a ball and press between the ziplock bag with a flat-bottomed glass to create a 4” thin circle. Set aside and cover with saran. Repeat process with all eight small pieces.
Making the dumplings:
Place one of the rounds in your slightly cupped hand, gently. Spoon two teaspoons of filling into the center. Gently close your hand around the filling to seal the edges of the dough in a half moon. Place in a bamboo steamer basket lined with baking paper. Repeat with the rest of the circles. Use a little canola oil on your fingertips and gently crimp the edges of each parcel to make a decorative wave pattern.
Place steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam for six minutes.
Repeat procedure with the next disk of dough while the dumplings are steaming.
Remove finished dumplings and place on a plate to serve with sweet soy dipping sauce. Or, cool and refrigerate for up to two days or freeze for up to one month. Re-steam for 3 minutes to heat.
Recipe and narrative Copyright © 2010 by Victoria Allman.
Copyright © 2010 by OceanLines LLC. All rights reserved.